“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).
In his recent piece for Covenant, George Sumner offers a reflection on an imminently reasonable question before the church: Why not get out of the (legal) marriage business altogether? Bishop Sumner’s reflection was prompted by Beto O’Rourke’s ill-considered and even less well-informed remarks about doing away with tax-exempt status for religious organizations that don’t toe the current preferred public policy line. But it is a question that has been considered for many years, even before the current questions relating to same-sex marriage were before us.
So why not “go European,” as Bishop Sumner puts it? Why not amend our canons so that clergy do not sign marriage licenses and only bless the unions of people already in possession of a valid marriage certificate from the secular authorities? Currently, of course, this would require that they get married by a justice of the peace. A complete shift to the system Sumner describes would take a change in the law in most if not all states.
I concede that the proposal may indeed be the most practical way forward for the Church. That doesn’t mean I like it, but I’ve given up on the pretense that I have to like something in order for it to be the case. This proposal, and indeed the more extreme proposal that churches lose tax-exempt status, either as a result of their beliefs or wholesale through a revocation of the idea of religious tax exemption itself, might actually be beneficial to the overall health of the Church. In the case of marriage, removing the legal question would likely take some of the heat from debates around marriage in the various communions, because only the most religiously committed would even see the point of having a priest bless their union.
In the case of the revocation of religious tax-exempt status, I think that this sort of clear demarcation between church and state might be the best medicine to help American Christians realize that neither patriotism nor, especially, nationalism is part of our faith, and that our baptismal certificate is our most significant citizenship document.
Despite the hope I would hold out that such clarity would be a gift and a means to combat a very clear sickness in the church in the United States, I cannot neglect to pay heed to the fact that it would likely mean the closing of numerous smaller congregations, or at the very least a major shift in the way we do ministry.
Even more importantly, I hear the words of Jeremiah ringing in my head to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…” (Jer. 29:7). I cannot in good conscience support such a shift in our canons, or a policy shift in our nation to do away with religious tax exemption altogether, for the same reason: it will damage one of the most honorable and wondrous aspects of civic life in the United States: a “thick” civic culture that helps mediate between the sphere of government and the sphere of the private and individual.
I still recall the first time I thoughtfully considered the positive role of government in society, and in securing the rights of the individual. I was in a college philosophy course and the question of religious liberty came up. I was arguing a hardcore religious liberty point, lifting up the freedom of a religious body over against the coerciveness of the state. The professor brought up the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. This was the court case that established that Amish communities are required to send their children to school through the eighth grade.
At first, I thought this was a clear violation of religious freedom: how could the government compel this religious community to raise their children in a particular way? Then my professor made this point: while Amish adolescents are traditionally given the opportunity to commit themselves to the community or not, that choice, absent at least some guaranteed education, is only really a choice for males, boys being raised with more easily marketable skills in construction and other trades than are Amish girls for the most part. In requiring a minimum education, the state was advocating for the rights of some of its citizens over and against the rights of a communal organization of its citizens. My mind was changed, and I began to see other instances where state curtailment of religious freedom in favor of individual welfare and liberty was desirable. (Another example would be requiring blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witness children in a life-threatening situation.)
This situation highlights the role of the state as an arbiter not only between the competing rights and claims of individual citizens, but between various groups of citizens. The pluralistic liberal democracy, at its best, is a government that adjudicates between individual citizens and bodies of citizens for the common good and welfare of all. A key aspect of promoting this general welfare is the recognition that a flat relationship between the individual and the government in every situation is, in fact, oppressive and detrimental to social cohesion. Rather than trying to do away with the differences between communities, the state functions best when it encourages communities to be as healthy as possible, while monitoring the welfare of individuals within them.
While he took a tremendous amount of criticism for his lecture on this topic, then Archbishop Rowan Williams’ lecture Civil and Religious law in England: a religious perspective is a good example of a move in the right direction: the recognition of intermediary communities to govern themselves with the overarching law of the community setting outside boundaries, and the state ensuring that the individual liberty and choice of its citizens are respected.
But how does this vision of a thick civic culture relate first to the policy of allowing for religious tax exemption, and then to the question of whether churches ought to allow their clergy to sign marriage licenses?
First, whether the organizations are religious or not, our tax code recognizes the tax-exempt status of organizations that are seen as contributing to the common good of society, and to the freedom of its citizens, in such a way that the state would want to encourage their activities. By encouraging civic groups, including religious organizations, to function without taxing them, the government is practicing a type of subsidiarity. Ad hoc associations of citizens who share common beliefs and goals are empowered to work together for the welfare of their wider communities without the interference of the mechanisms of the state, and without money leaving the local community only to be funneled back in much less efficient manners.
Additionally, encouraging such community engagement through civic organizations, especially religious organizations, has other benefits: they become schools of civic practices and even civic virtue which can then be carried on into involvement in all levels of government. People who serve on vestries and become familiar with the basics of Robert’s Rules are better equipped to go to meetings of county commissions and city councils. People who have negotiated the personal politics of an auxiliary of their church, synagogue, or mosque, are more equipped to deal with the politics of their local communities without succumbing to frustration. At a time when our culture is fragmenting, we need the sort of cohesiveness and practical skill inculcated by such groups more than ever.
Finally, there is one important aspect of religious communities in particular that should not be overlooked in this age of aberrant and extreme ideology. Religious commitment, when coupled with real life connection and community engagement, is an important antidote to extremist ideologies and — especially — to the recruitment of alienated individuals by online extremists. Archbishop Justin Welby memorably called in the House of Lord’s for a better ideology as a key antidote to the murderous ideology of the Islamic State, remarks which he then expanded on in an article in Prospect. The same is true if we hope to combat the ideologies that attract people such as Dylan Roof. The reality is that extremists use the internet to attract people who already feel bitter and alienated from their real-world community, and to normalize extremist ideology while providing a new, virtual community that calls people to believe in and commit evil.
In my state, Tennessee, there have been various periods of limited (thankfully) public outcry against the construction of mosques. The rhetoric was that people were fearful that the mosques would become a place of extremism. Statistically and rationally the reverse is true: if we want fewer people attracted to extremist Islamist ideologies, we should encourage the construction of mosques, and be grateful for the relationships their existence encourages with the broader community. Likewise with churches and synagogues. Our society would be much better off all around if we were finding ways to encourage and expand the existence of local civic organizations, with religious organizations being a special subcategory.
Which brings me back to the question of signing the marriage license as a priest. While I understand the reasoning behind the arguments of my colleagues who say that they will not sign marriage licenses because it makes them agents of the state, I do not believe it is either correct nor the best thing for our society.
It is not correct because the state does not deputize the clergy to perform a function that originates with the state, but instead recognizes what is taking place within a particular community of its citizens as satisfying the legal requirements of civil marriage. The direction is reversed. Rather than saying “go forth and do what the state does,” the state is saying “We see what you’re doing and recognize it.” Any given religious community may be saying more in articulating the relationship between the two people than the state requires, but they are not saying less. Secondly, if we want a state that rightly encourages a deep and rich civic life, it should be well prepared to recognize the actions of communities of faith within it, rather than flattening everything to a contractual exchange between individuals and the government.
It may well be that we are in an era where the changes Bishop Sumner suggests are indeed the most practical, and perhaps inevitable. If they are, I think we would do well to be aware of what other changes may be on the way, and how those changes may even be good for the Church, but bad for the overall welfare of the city where we sojourn.
Fr. Jody Howard is Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Tennessee.